Monday, June 30, 2014

Gettysburg in Film vs. Reality

My favorite movie as a kid was the 1993 four hour civil war epic, Gettysburg, starring Martin Sheen as General Lee and Jeff Daniels as Col. Joshua Chamberlain. (Yes, I was that kind of kid.) I'd like to revisit it now that I've read Allen C. Guelzo's new book, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. Guelzo is a serious historian, and it shows. He demolishes nearly every myth yours truly took in as a I watched and re-watched the Hollywood version of the story as a child.

We learn, for example, that Chamberlain owes his reputation as much to his long life and gift for self-promotion as for the objective importance of his heroics on Little Round Top. Several other low-level commanders who offered equally vital service in holding the tenuous Union line on that second day paid for it with their lives. Guelzo also shows an astute political sense, revealing the cleavages between abolitionists and Democrats among the Army's top generals. As late as the Gettysburg campaign, the upper crust of the Army of the Potomac remained a largely McClellanite faction. Talented abolitionist commanders repeatedly found themselves stuck in low-level command. In Guelzo's account, abolitionist O.O. Howard is praised, and his 150-year old bad reputation is at least partly ascribed to his political beliefs. More provocatively, the possibility that commanding general Meade's moderate politics informed his failure to aggressively pursue Lee after the battle cannot be discounted.

The military narrative is handled deftly, but Guelzo's key contributions lay elsewhere. He does not shy away from the true nature of the invading army or the purpose for which it fought. As Confederate divisions spread across south central Pennsylvania, they had little compunction about "sweeping up any black people they could lay their hands upon," including those born free in the North (73). Put simply, kidnapping was the official policy of Confederate armies. Guelzo puts this policy in its appropriate context:
This might, in the larger scheme of the campaign, have seemed a waste of military time, but slaves were a valuable commodity. As one farmer was told by Confederates who were escorting "four wagon loads of women & children between Chambersburg & the Maryland line," even the children "will bring something." This was, after all, an army whose cause was inextricably bound up with the defense of black enslavement. To have left Pennsylvania's blacks in undisturbed freedom would have been tantamount to denying the validity of the whole Confederate enterprise. (73-74).
Of even more interest is Guelzo's description of what the Confederacy's premier army in the field actually looked like. A British military observer of the Gettysburg campaign noted, "in rear of each regiment were from twenty to thirty negro slaves." Guelzo writes:
From the beginning of the war, Confederate armies had annexed large contingents of slaves--between 12,000 and 20,000 at Manassas Junction in 1861, and "fifteen or twenty thousand" on the Peninsula in 1862. By the time of the Gettysburg Campaign, Thomas Caffey, an English-born Confederate artilleryman, estimated that "in our whole army there must be at least thirty thousand colored servants who do nothing but cook and wash." (160-161).
The very appearance of the opposing armies reflected the differing social and economic visions for which they fought. While Confederate armies took advantage of thousands of forced laborers to perform the menial tasks of camp life, Union armies had to rely on their own soldiers. The fact that as many as 30,000 enslaved Blacks marched into Pennsylvania with Lee's 80,000 White soldiers is not reflected in popular narratives of Gettysburg or the war. I certainly don't recall seeing many slaves in the movie I loved so much. Their absence fosters a false portrait of a conflict between two honorable and equally sympathetic sides.

The true appearance of a Confederate Army is little known today, and it's easy to see why. The basic apparatus of the Confederate war machine rebukes all the attempts to recast the war as a battle between White brothers with merely differing views of the Constitution. When we take in the logistical realities of the how the opposing armies operated, we're reminded that the war was fought on the same grounds on which it was provoked: whether a slave society or a free labor society ought to have supremacy on the North American continent.

This also confronts the myth of the Black Confederate soldier. Rooted in the remembrance activities of White Confederate veterans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, modern-day apologists for the South have attempted to recast the enslaved forced laborers as "soldiers" who gladly fought for the South. The persistence of the Black Confederate soldier myth shows that we are not blind to the ideological and moral importance of what the respective armies looked like. Just as the reality of tens of thousands of enslaved menial laborers presents a microcosm of the South's anti-democratic cause, the myth of the Black soldier implies an egalitarian cause fought for states' rights and limited government.

Black soldiers did, of course, play a decisive role in the final years of the war, as 200,000 served in the Union Army and Navy. But at Gettysburg that was still in the future, as was the Confederacy's last-gasp and half-hearted effort in the final months of the war to organize a Black regiment. Allen Guelzo has subtitled his book, "The Last Invasion." Unlike so many popular treatments of the battle, we can begin to see what this invasion represented: an expansive White slaveholder's republic, designed to persist indefinitely. The invasion was a moral as well as a physical drama, constituting the high-water mark of tyranny in the United States. We can only be grateful that it failed.

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